The No. 20 Fighting Irish couldn’t find the strike zone Sunday afternoon and let a possible conference series sweep slip away at Frank Eck Stadium. Villanova (9-21, 1-5) beat Notre Dame 10-6 for its first Big East win of the season.
Walks and hit batters plagued an Irish team that is normally one of the best in the country at throwing strikes. Notre Dame (19-10, 4-5 Big East) walked eight batters Sunday and a hit another one — six of those nine came around to score. Irish pitchers issued 19 total bases on balls during the three-game series.
“I don’t know if we decided that we’re going to pitch away from contact or just got away from what we were doing, but we certainly weren’t very good,” head coach Mik Aoki said. “We created a ton of offense for them.”
Notre Dame entered the series averaging 2.2 walks per nine innings, which was the ninth best mark in the nation and the best in the Big East.
Villanova starter Josh Harris, meanwhile, made it through eight innings for his third win of the year. He threw 134 pitches, gave up four earned runs, struck out two and walked two.
The Wildcats broke the game open with five runs in the seventh inning — a rally that started with a hit batter and two walks to load the bases. Freshman Kevin Jewitt hit an RBI single through the middle of the infield. Junior Connor Jones followed him with a bases-clearing triple off the right field wall.
Jones picked up the first of his four RBI Sunday when he walked with the bases loaded in the second inning. That free pass came in the middle of a four-run rally that helped Villanova open up an early comfortable lead. Irish starter Matt Ternowchek walked three batters, including two with the bases loaded. The Wildcats also scored on an infield single and a sacrifice fly, which was the final straw for Ternowchek’s short appearance.
The sophomore was auditioning for the third weekend starter spot in Notre Dame’s rotation. He had previously been 4-0 in 10 appearances (nine of them out of the bullpen) with a 2.13 earned run average.
“I think Matt’s been a heck of a lot better for us,” Aoki said. “My feeling right now is that we’ll probably stick with him for next Sunday.”
Irish senior Charlie Markson started Notre Dame’s response in the third inning. He stretched a line drive to left field into a double, his first extra-base hit of the year. Lead-off hitter Frank DeSico brought him home with a well-placed bunt for a base hit. Sophomore Ryan Bull added two more runs in the inning with a bases-loaded single with two outs to pull the Irish within one run.
Bull drove in another run in the bottom of the seventh inning and two more with a single in the ninth. He knocked in seven total in the three games this weekend. He is up to 16 RBI this year and is starting to add a little more production behind Notre Dame’s power duo of Eric Jagielo and Trey Mancini in the middle of the batting order.
“I went into a little slump where I didn’t feel too comfortable and [now] I definitely feel a lot more comfortable in the box,” Bull said. “Overall, things are coming together.”
Notre Dame took the first two games of the series at Frank Eck Stadium. Markson scored the game-winning run of a 4-3 victory Friday night in the 11th inning. He led off with a single, stole second base and then came around to score on a hit from left fielder Ricky Sanchez.
Control problems started to haunt the Irish pitching staff Friday night. They walked nine batters and hit two more to extend that game. Villanova catcher John Cialone hit a two-run double in the eighth inning to tie the game 3-3. The hit came off Irish closer Dan Slania, who blew a save for the first time this year but eventually got credit for the win.
On Saturday, Irish first basemen Trey Mancini posted six RBI to lead his team to an 11-8 win. Four of those runs came on a grand slam to left-center field in the sixth inning. Notre Dame trailed 6-4 before Mancini’s home run (his fourth this season).
Senior Adam Norton (7-0) remained undefeated with the win despite not having his best effort of the year on the mound. Norton gave up 10 hits and three earned runs in six innings of work.
Sunday’s loss was the first of Notre Dame’s current homestand. The Irish had won their previous five games in South Bend. It was also Villanova’s first win ever at Frank Eck Stadium in 20 visits. The Irish will play Michigan and Eastern Michigan on Tuesday and Wednesday before heading to Pittsburgh for another Big East series next weekend.
Despite the hot start to their season, Notre Dame sunk back below .500 in conference play with the loss. No. 10 Louisville swept Aoki’s team last weekend and they also lost their Big East opener to Seton Hall on March 22.